Worthiness [ep 12]

Fara felt like shit.

She also couldn’t see anything, but mainly, she felt like shit. At the bottom of her mind was a panic, an urgency, a dull pang of dread, an impulse to WAKE UP, an ember battling against the dull cold of unconsciousness.

The sound of a voice stirred in mind, made her fight harder. Roxanne’s voice.

“She’s gone?” Roxanne’s voice was always strong, maybe a bit throaty, but now it sounded concerned. “Like, we’re sure she’s not just out at some bar or club getting drunk like a normal college kid, right?”

“Yeah, I talked with her roommates, none of them know where she is. I flew over the whole city scanning for her. Nothing.” Terry’s voice. He sounded like hell, a man in desperate need of a good nap. “Kamiko was the last one to see her to talk to her. She said she was going to the gym. I checked, and she did sign into the gym that evening. But she must’ve done something after.”

“She told me she was going to study!” Osprey, audibly upset. Osprey always had a birdlike quality to his voice; Fara never said so, but it vaguely reminded her of a parrot she had when she was eight. “I told her I found the Master’s layer and she wanted to hit it, but I said we should wait.”

“She probably went anyway,” Eleod’s voice, craggy, cranky, grumbling.

“But she said to wait until everyone was here!” protested Osprey.

“The great Master Spy Osprey, everybody!” rumbled Eleod’voice. “Couldn’t even tell when Fara of all people was lying to him!”

“Or MAYBE I just trusted my friend,” protested Osprey’s voice.

Fara felt a paroxysm of guilt. Dimly, she was remembering the events leading up to her current state of feeling like shit, hearing the voices of her friends, not remembering everything. Part of her hoped that she would just wake up from it all in her dorm room bed, perhaps the result of a bad hangover. But she had done something stupid last night. Not stupid like getting totally smashed on tequila like a normal college girl, no, Fara was a special kind of stupid, deciding to take on an immortal magic user and his secret society single-handedly.

And now she was…what the hell was going on? Her mind was still foggy, the gears still turning slowly. She heard the voices of her friends, but she didn’t see them, and she sure as hell didn’t know where she was.

“What the hell were YOU doing this time, Eleod?” Osprey again, sounding a little defensive and angry.

“On a vision quest,” answered Eleod’s voice. “With the assistance of Islen the Dreamer, the great Kakkaran Koradji. Gods man, that guy’s fucking insufferable.”

“Don’t these Elementalist vision quest involve a lot of mind-altering substances?” Roxanne’s voice, again.

“There are a number of aids used to transcend the axis mundi, yes,” Eleod’s voice, grouchy, defensive. “What’re you driving at?”

“So you were getting stoned out of your mind in the Mana Dimension?” Osprey, his voice piercing. “What, did you hit up the beach and get some hookers, too? Is that also part of this ‘vision quest’ bullshit?”

Fara knew enough about Elementalism where beach parties and hookers were almost certainly part of vision quests in certain traditions, like whichever sect of it Denise followed. But of course it was different in different parts of the Mana Dimension; she had done a project on it in fifth grade. Why it floated to the surface of her mind now in her dreamlike fugue, she had no idea.

“No hookers,” grumbled Eleod’s voice. “To appease the Shadowy Powers, I had to endure unspeakable pain and suffering in order to attain the Staff of Eternal Darkness.”

“…the what?’ Terry’s voice, endearingly confused.

“A powerful magical artifact,” said Eleod. “I am not the Master’s equal when it comes to raw strength…but with the Staff, perhaps I will be able to match him. It’s our only chance. How’d your talk with that obsolescent old sea-god you call Dad go, Valkyrie?”

Roxanne’s voice, cloaked in steel with a hint of sadness. “Greatfather Zahd was not pleased.”

“But he didn’t squish me!” Bim’s voice, squeaky. “Clearly, he considered me a worthy hero and noble addition to this saga!”

“…more likely, he thought you a worm beneath his notice,” corrected Roxanne’s voice. “But he the news that one of his daughter’s betrayed him threw him into a white-hot rage…that’s PROBABLY why there was a big tidal wave off the coast of Tasnicaport. It took the combined efforts of me and my sisters to ensure the disaster was no greater…”

“…so, where are your sisters?” asked Osprey’s. “Seems like they’d be handy in this fight.”

“Gabriela has her duties to attend to in the Pure Land,” answered Roxanne’s voice, sadness wrapped in relief. “Astrid and I dueled for the honor of being responsible for bringing the renegade to justice.” Roxanne’s voice became quicker, more excited. “Astrid Sky-Eyes, her with the keenest senses, was confident, as she pulled forth her twin blades, heart-seeking Tyrfing and blood-drinker Levateinn. But it had been an age since she faced her equal, and I, Roxanne North-Star, hefted Daedalus, the finest of lances, ready to do battle—“

“We don’t need to hear the whole rotten saga,” interrupted Eleod’s voice.

“But you beat her?” asked Osprey. “I mean, she has a bunch of really broken combos in Manacalibur .”

“….yes I beat her!” said Roxanne’s voice. “Maybe I should be in the next edition of the game, maybe as premium DLC, hmm?” A heavy, sigh, from a woman who had lived over a thousand years, sounding tired, tired to the bone, frayed at the root. “Truth be told, most of my sisters have little affection for Man’s World. I think they are pleased to be returning to the Pure Land.”

“We still don’t know where Fara is!” Terry’s voice. Trying to sound strong and determined, and mostly (but not totally) succeeding. “Maybe she didn’t go after the Master. Maybe she just got lost, or her phone ran out of juice. Maybe she got lucky last night. There are about a dozen more likely places for a college girl to be than ‘lair of ancient wizard’.”

“She’s there,” said Roxanne’s voice, tempered with steel. “I know .”

“Then that’s where we have to go, too,” Eleod’s voice, tired, resigned, but still grumbling a bit.

At this point Fara didn’t hear any more voices, but she liked to imagine that Terry and Osprey nodded somberly.

And now there was a new voice – ancient and raspy, mad and wise. “Open your eyes,” it commanded.

Fara opened her eyes, fully awake, to see the cell around her, to feel her limbs bound, and to feel an absence – the Sword was gone, taken from her, not in the part of her soul where it should be.

Her eyes, blurry, focused on old man, tall and lean, with a brow containing a terrible intellect, and the resources of all magic past and present. The self-proclaimed Master of Mana.

“Looking for this?” he said, raising the Mana Sword. The Master had manifested it as an elaborate, oversized design, with a golden inlay and a bejeweled hilt.

Fara’s eyes widened, her memory of what had happened flooding back to her in full. She had come to rescue Butlesworth - -but now, she was captured, and the Master had the sword.

“I suppose we should prepare for the arrival of your friends,” said the Master, his lips forming a smile underneath the fu Manchu mustache.

Fara felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. She had awoken into a nightmare.

“My friends…I…I heard them…how?” asked Fara, her voice barely a whisper. Her muscles felt weak; her strength felt depleted.

The Master grinned, appearing pleased. “Ah, it appears you are not entirely devoid of intellectual curiosity. Perhaps the light of my wisdom and experience may illuminate that dim mind of yours, after all.” From his voluminous robes he produced a harp, finely crafted, inlaid with elaborate patterns. Fara immediately recognized it.

“King Edward’s Harp?” cried Fara, shocked. “How did you get it? I went to all this trouble to save it from fascist jerks in Fabul, and last I saw it was still on Roxanne’s mantle.”

“Indeed,” said the Master, nodding. “You did. And King Edward’s harp does sit on the Valkyrie’s mantle. This is that harp’s twin.”

“Twin Harps?” spat Fara, shocked. “What do you mean?”

“The Kings of Damcyan would use these twin harps to communicate with each other over long distances,” explained the Master. “Why, King Edward himself used it to play music to break the spell of the Dark Elf lord over magnetic weapons. Even though he himself was far from the battle, his friend, the great Baronian King Cecil, had the harp’s twin.”

“…so the harp really is magic?”

“Yes,” said the Master, grinning. “Though, it’s an old legend….not something your Damcyanese friend would tell you … these days, it they say whisperweed instead.”

“So,” said Fara, realization dawning on her. “That’s how you knew everything. There was never any spy.”

“The dwarf was right to suspect something,” answered the Master, “though, perhaps, he was too easily suspicious of others. Once I learned that you had obtained the harp of King Edward, I moved to acquire its twin…a small matter, for one such as I. Then I quickened a one-way silence spell on the harp, to ensure we could hear you, but not vice versa.”

Three figures entered the small room. One Fara didn’t recognize – a tall, tanned woman with a duster jacket, wide-brimmed hat, and over-large cowboy boots, with a bandolier of ammunition and six-shooters slung at her sides. This must be the gunslinger Roxanne and Osprey had a run-in with. The other was Marcus, now a towering piece of granite, a rock monster – though, in his face, Fara could see the traces of his once-handsome visage. The third was the Valkyrie, Ariela.

“You,” said Fara, her voice cracking, her face turning towards the blond-haired Valkyrie. Fara couldn’t help but notice that Ariela’s haitstyle and clothing were decidedly modern, fashionable even; she wouldn’t look out of place walking down the street or taking a commuter train. “Ariela Open-legs.”

“An epithet I never cared for,” said Ariela. “But at least it’s better than ‘the Web’s first porn star.’”

“But, in the stories –“

“Yes,” interrupted Ariela, waving her hand abruptly to cut Fara off. “In the stories I’m always some cheap whore. Some joke. Defeated easily so I can be ravished, retold in lurid detail for the entertainment of a drunken tavern. Jerk-off fodder for the jomsvikings of old.”

“….I was going to say in the stories you seemed like a nice person,” said Fara. Ariela winced. “Why? Why are you with this creep? Why did you give a MANA SEED to this mustache twirling, mua-ha-ha-ing looney toon?”

“…if you had lived my life, seen what I had seen, you would understand, Margaret’s noble daughter,” murmured Ariela. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“…all this trouble for a little girl, huh?” murmured the gunslinger.

“A particularly troublesome sort,” said the Master. “She has… inconvenienced me in the past. She is to blame for my current decrepit state.”

Fara remembered that in one of her very first Mana Knight adventures, she had disrupted an evil ritual meant to transfer the Master to a healthy, young host body. The spirit of the Master was immortal; having conquered death itself, his consciousness was passed on from one body to the next, through the centuries.

Miles, Fiend of Earth, opened his mouth and spoke with a voice of landslides and tectonic plates cracking.

“No, no,” said the Master. “We’re not going to kill her.” He held the Mana Sword, oversized and gaudy, in front of him. “Something like this has never been done before…I can’t be sure her bond with the Sword is totally severed. If she were to die, Mana may choose a new Knight.”

“…are ya sure?” asked the gunslinger. “Just sayin’… I seen this shit before, suh. Now she looks all tied up pretty-like and mostly harmless, but before yah know it, she’s free and gone dun’ some crazy shit and yer’ just thinkin’ you shoulda popped her when ya had the chance.”

Miles avalanched his agreement.

“I won’t endanger my prize,” said the Master. “Besides, if we kill her, she won’t learn anything. I think once she has come to understand certain things, she will make a fine addition to our family…and if not, well, I could use another Fiend in my service…”

Fara rolled her eyes. “It’s nice to get so many job offers before I even graduate,” she said. “Do you have a better offer than Maitreya? I heard she has a fantastic dental plan, and free pizza dinner for teambuilding on Tuesdays!”

“Ah, the Somers Snark shows itself!” grinned the Master, revealing row after row of yellowed teeth, apparently unmoved by the mention of a Dark God. “Your perpetual defense whenever you are outmatched. You no doubt had a few choice lines for the Goddess of Plagues herself….I wonder if she appreciated the honor.” The Master swung the Mana Sword about leisurely, and stuck its point into the hard concrete floor. The Master leaned on the sword like a cane; Fara couldn’t help but wince at the poor blade maintenance. Even if the Mana Sword was functionally indestructible, it was important to treat edged weapons with care and respect.

The Master waved his hand. “Her friends will be here soon,” he said. “Prepare an appropriate welcome for them.”

The Valkyrie and the Gunslinger left, but Marcus, Fiend of Earth, remained.

The Master’s face contorted into one of concern. “What’s wrong, Marcus?”

Marcus’s face frowned; Fara could still see rocky strands of what used to be his hair. Even though in some ways he now more resembled a Reklar, she could still see that impossibly gorgeous boy that set her heart aflutter way back in high school.

The Master put his weathered, skeletal hand with overlong dirty nail on Marcus’s craggy arm. “I know you’re not happy with this state of affairs,” he said. He heaved a great sigh, filled with phlegm and years. “I remember when you were first came to us,” he said. “You were six. You had just written the futthark rune for ‘fire’ and nearly burned your house down. You were terrified of what you could do…what had happened to your parents…you were scared, lost, and alone. But in time you learned to control the runes. You learned of a whole world of magic, a whole secret world many people think they see but never truly understand. And, in time you learned…mastery. And so it will be with this,” he said, gesturing at the walking mountain that was once a boy, “you have power beyond what most mages gain in their lives. In time, you will learn to control the rock and stone like they were own muscles.”

Marcus cracked again, seeming not entirely convinced.

“We are all here to do, what we are all here to do,” said the Master. “Remember that. And remember, no matter what happens, you are still a member of our family.”

Marcus didn’t say anything this time, appearing grudgingly satisfied. With heavy, shattering tread, he exited the room.

“Nice speech,” said Fara. “You almost sounded like you believed it.”

“I do believe it,” protested the Master. “Though these transitions take time.”

“You’re a madman.”

“You said as much earlier,” retorted the Master.

“Let me add to that: you are egotistical, manipulative, and solipsistic. Also, you’re just kind of an asshole.”

The Master chuckled, amused by the weakness of Fara’s insult. “I have been many things in many times,” he said. “A conqueror. A slave. A king. A husband, a father …but, above all else, I prefer to think myself as a teacher,” he said, his voice low, like a rumbling drill. “Are you ready for your lesson?”

Fara rolled her eyes at the Master. “So is this where go all evil mwa-ha-ha, monologue on, and explain your evil plan? Why bother?”

“Ah, you misread me – I desire your education,” the wizened old man said, “and because I desire a true victory,” answered the Master, “and, although defeating you was satisfying, it is not complete. A true victory, young girl, is when your enemies realize how wrong and foolish they were to oppose you in the first place.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Fara, “I’m sure this is the part where you say how everything proceeded according to your designs. Blah blah blah insidious plot, blah blah blah chess analogy, blah blah blah mwahahaha. Whatevs.”

“Oh, really?” smiled the Master. “You think I planned all this? You think I planned for you to acquire the TwinHarp so I could spy on you? You think I planned for the robot that was in fact the essential component for my ritual to fall into your hands to be used as bait? You think I planned for you to come charging in to my very lair without any help, practically falling into my lap?” The Master folded his fingers, his twelve rings of power glinting in the dull light. “No, young girl, I merely had to be patient and wait for you to make a series of stupid mistakes. Which, inevitably, you did.”

The mention of Butlesworth alarmed Fara. “What have you done with my friend?”

“The machine?” asked the Master. “It was a vessel…reforging a new connection with the Mana Sword has never been done, and I required some…unorthodox magic. Although made to appear as a simple RT-series robot, he was in fact a Tetujin –“

“a Tetuwhat?”

“An ancient race of mechanical beings, native to the Light Dimension,” answered the Master, didactically. “He was a Tetujin, reconstructed by my Grand Artificer.” The Master shook his head. “You brandish Mana’s power so carelessly, and yet you remain so ignorant of it…to separate the Sword from the Knight should not be possible.”

Fara rolled her eyes. “I suspect you’re just itching to tell me how you did it, Oh Great One.”

The Master became a bit animated, taking on the air of a lecturing professor. “Although the Mana Seed was an essential power source….and it had to be a Mana Seed to provide the right kind of energy. But power wasn’t enough – shaving the Sword from your soul required the right tool , the right incantation. One of my Brothers – a truly brilliant mage, an Illuminate of the First Tier – thought blood magic would be the answer, and, after many tries, he crafted a suitable rune. It was possible to engrave the rune on the mechanical heart of a Tetujin, which we then disguised as a simple RT-series robot, to be smuggled here.” The Master grinned, slightly. “Even with all that, it was no simple process…I imagine no other magic user save Rainere or Chrystalis themselves could have done what I did.”

Contemplatively, the Master shook his head, and sighed. “It’s such a pity about Illuminate Agathon…apparently the act of forging the rune cost him his mind. That’s always the risk, with Tauroch’s magic.”

“Wait - Tauroch!” said Fara, shocked. “Fucking Tauroch. So you’re in league with the Dark Gods?”

The Master chuckled lightly. “Hardly. Just because one drinks milk or enjoys honey does not make one worship sacred cows or dumb insects…the Gods are not be followed blindly, but occasionally they do produce useful magics to be harvested. The worship of Gods is for weak-minded fools. ”

The Master hefted the Mana Sword, holding it awkwardly, gazing at it admirably.

“Tell me, young girl, do you even know what this is?”

“A sword,” replied Fara, “more to the point, my sword.”

“A…concrete and practical answer, that shows the limitations of your imagination,” answered the Master. “This is not just some simple weapon. This is a thing of the cosmos, a primal piece of the universe and Mana itself, wielded by countless heroes across history…young girl, you still haven’t answered the key question. Why do you have this Sword?”

“The Goddess Rainere gave it to me,” answered Fara.

“Avoiding the question,” said the Master, with a teacher’s practiced patience. “ Why did she give it to you? And do the gods even have volition or will, or was she acting as an agent of the forces of the universe – of Mana itself? Tell me, young girl – did you even think to ask Rainere?”

Fara was at a loss. “I….did,” she said.

“And let me guess: she gave you a pointless and cryptic answer, like ‘the truth points to itself,’ or ‘understanding will come in the fullness of time.”

“Um,” said Fara, “actually, it was something along the lines of ‘it could be no other.’”

“Which means what, exactly?” said the Master, grinning.

“I don’t know!” exclaimed Fara. “I haven’t given it much thought! Maybe some stupid prophecy, or some bloodline bullshit, or something. Who the fuck knows about these things?”

I know,” said the Master, “and I can tell you it’s no prophecy. Though there are several prophecies surrounding the Mana Knight, there are none that describe who wields the Sword – no ancient scrolls saying something like ‘Verily, there will come a girl, scarlet of hair and middling of grades, and she shall lead.’”

Fara was silent.

“And, as to the question of your bloodline, for a time I thought that might be the key,” he said, “that you were some descendent of a previous Mana Knight, or Belgememnon, or some other great hero. But I researched the Somers family tree back to before the founding of the Republic – indeed, as far back as the founding of Taznikaport – and you know what I found? Nothing. No conquerors, warlords, world saviors, heroes or leaders. No great men. You’re nobody, from a line of nobodies.”

“That’s not true!” insisted Fara. “My parents fought in the Great War!”

“Ah yes,” said the Master, his cruel grin curling underneath his thin mustache, “your father the airplane mechanic and your mother the secretary. True, noble heroes of the Web.”

“What, you think everyone who marched off to war got play Generalissimo?” retorted Fara. “Someone had to fix the damned planes. It takes a lot of people to win a war.” The force of answer seemed to momentarily take the Master aback. “What the hell did you do in the war, anyway?”

“Both the Light and Dark Gods offered me unimaginable power, if only I would become their servant,” he said, reflecting. “But the Master serves no one.”

“…so, you didn’t do a damned thing in the war?” asked Fara. “Like, the fate of the whole Web in the balance, and you didn’t even so much as lift a finger?”

“Other powerful mortals aligned themselves with the Gods,” said the Master. “Dorian. Salynae. Terra. And now they are sealed within the Place Which Is No More for all eternity…no. Theirs is a fate I would not share.”

The Master waved his hands. “But again, we dance around the central question. Why do you have the Sword? Tell me, when you first laid eyes upon it, did you realize that you had before you one of the Web’s great treasures, an ineffable fragment of the Universe, a piece of the Secret of Mana? Or did you merely grab the shiny object?” He chuckled lightly. “Ah, I already know the answer to that, of course. Contemplation and considered action are not exactly your strong points.”

“…are you quite done?” asked Fara. “The gunslinger was right. You should just kill me while you have the chance. Once my friends are through with you, you’ll wish you had.”

“Ah, your friends,” chided the Master. “My gunslinger already proved herself more than a match for the Guardians…and Marcus handily defeated many of you even before he was recently empowered…and your Valkyrie? Well, as you see, I have one of my own….because, young girl, you are no hero, for what hero would lead her companions to their certain doom?”

“You’ll find my friends are tougher than you think,” Fara insisted.

“Perhaps they will best my allies,” mused the Master, “but do you think any of them have a chance against me, Lord of the Twelve Elementals, the Sagacious One, the Timeless Scholar, Guru of the Mystic Arts? Now that I possess the one weapon in creation that can truly threaten me?” The Master looked embarrassed, and covered his mouth. “Oh, I’ve let slip the answer….”

“…what do you mean?” asked Fara.

The Master sighed. “I should’ve expected the Valkyrie to focus on your training at the expense of your education. Isn’t it obvious, young girl? Come now, even you must’ve figured out that ‘Why do you have the Sword’ is a misleading question…but I want to hear you say it.”

Realization dawned on Fara, a slow, curdling, churning feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Why do you have the Mana Sword?” repeated the Master.

“I don’t!” she blurted. “You do!”

The Master smiled, pleased. “Exactly,” he said. “Because I am the Master of Mana, and have spent untold eons studying the infinite mysteries of the magic in all its myriad forms, gaining dominion over every Elemental sphere – even death itself. And you? You’re just a stupid little girl who stumbled blindly onto something she did not understand or deserve.”

“That’s not true!” shouted Fara.

“Not so sassy now, are you?” chided the Master. “Now you realize you are not some kind of ‘chosen one.’ There was no prophecy about you. You are not the direct line descendent of anyone special. You have no special claim to this Sword, no reason to be in this story.” The Master paused for a moment, letting it all sink in. “You know,” said the Master sounding sad, “if you had left the Sword in its resting place, perhaps you would be back at the dormitory now, drinking or making eyes at some guy like a normal girl…but now you are here, a captive in this place…and all the people who care enough about you to come and rescue you are going to die, and it will be your fault.”

Fara felt a choking sensation in her gullet. She desperately wanted to keep in control. She didn’t want to give the bastard the satisfaction, even though every word he said was probably true.

“It’s a pity, really,” said the Master. “If you had had a better teacher, things would’ve been different for you. You have been huggermuggered and bandied about by forces you know nothing about, or next to nothing…” The Master waved his hand, leaning on the Mana Sword clumsily. “But that’s all over now.” The Master turned to leave. “I suppose now, you’ll never have the chance to flunk Freshman Math, or the History of the Merge Dimension…

“It’s sad, really,” the Master continued, his tone rueful, “if you had never drawn the Sword, I suspect you could’ve had a quite happy life – and your friends would not be running towards their deaths.”

That did it. Fara couldn’t hold back anymore. There was no snappy comeback, no tough talk about magic swords, just the sound of a young girl who had made a horrible mistake, crying.

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” said Roxanne. “A damp cave maybe? Some hidey hole in an abandoned warehouse?”

“He would consider that cliché,” answered Eleod.

“But hiding beneath a memorial to one of the largest massacres in Web history, that’s ok?” asked Osprey.

“Eh, he’s a bit of a drama queen. What do you expect from someone who styles himself the ‘Master of Mana’,” replied Eleod.

The four heroes – Roxanne, Terry, Osprey, and Eleod – had traveled to the Tane Memorial in the Mystic Ward in Albrook. Though the entrance had been concealed by magic, the weaves of magic were clearly hastily redone; it was no issue for Eleod and Osprey to dispel it. After a short walk through a stony passage, the party had entered a large, immaculately maintained chamber filled with sundry magical artifacts in glass cases. Even Roxanne didn’t recognize everything; much of it seemed old beyond reckoning, and perhaps some of it was even from beyond the known Web.

“Look at all this stuff,” marveled Roxanne, surveying the large chamber. “The Master’s quite a hoarder.”

Eleod grumbled. “You’re one to talk.”

“But, seriously, there’s runeforged hammers…Xsian astrological texts…storm, earth, and fire, he even has magicite . This kind of stuff belongs in a museum.”

Terry chuckled through the helmet of his armor. “I’m sure someone would say that about your Space Battles: Sentry Station Six production miniature.”

Roxanne looked defensive. “Moldenberry himself said he wanted the fans to have the original miniatures!”

Osprey chimed in. “’Oh, hey Osprey, thank you so much for locating the Master’s evil secret lair! Also, have you lost weight recently?’ ‘Why, no problem, friends, and yes, I have been trying a new diet!”

Eleod shot Osprey a withering gaze. “This is no time for games,” he roared. “This is a Sanctum of the Secret Imperial Society…no doubt as soon as we entered this place the Master was alerted to our presence!”

“Yeah, about that ‘Sanctum of the Secret Imperial Society’ stuff…this place seems…off. Strange. Like, the warp and weave of Mana is different from anything I’ve seen.”

“Best not try any spellcasting,” chastised Eleod. “Inside this place, only those initiated into the higher mysteries of the Hermetic Order will be able to use mana without consequence…”

“Really?” asked Osprey. “Not even a Dark Bomb? It’s like, one of my signature moves…”

Eleod sighed, frustrated and in a hurry, but privately regretting he didn’t explain all this before arriving at the evil wizard’s secret lair. “Are you familiar with the Rune of Othlorx?”

“It’s a Merge League thing, isn’t it?” asked Osprey. “Like, Alkar marked mages he didn’t like with it so they can only cast magic with great pain.”

“This Sanctum, this place, is like one big Rune of Othlorx. Those unfamiliar with the rituals involve risk powerful mana feedback by casting spells…I warn you, that pain is enough to incapacitate most people.”

“Ok, no Dark Bomb, got it,” said Osprey, “I’ll just need to rely on my various other skills, such as swordplay, ninjitsu, and a typing speed of over a hundred words a minute.”

“…what about you, Eleod?” asked Roxanne.

“…what do you mean?” asked the dwarf.

“What about your magic?” asked the Valkyrie. “Unless you’re planning on using your charming personality and magnificent beard alone to free Fara?”

“My magic will be fine,” insisted Eleod, hoisting the Staff of Eternal Darkness. “We’re wasting time.”

“…so you explain to us that only people in the super-secret evil magical conspiracy can use magic here, and then you say that you’re totally fine to be here?” asked Osprey.

“What, you want my whole gods-damned life story?” asked Eleod.

Roxanne raised the Daedalus Lance. Her eyes narrowed as she turned to face the dwarf.

“I think we deserve an explanation, Eleod,” said Roxanne, sternly.

Osprey put his hand on the hilt of his sword. Terry popped his gravitic beatsticks.

Eleod clenched his fists, drawing in shadowy power. This Valkyrie had been nothing but trouble; her kind always were. If she had actually done a proper job of training the Mana Knight, had trained her like a good soldier to follow orders, they wouldn’t be here walking into what was almost certainly a trap. He still couldn’t believe she had let the gods-damned Gaulemn get away. That left Terry and Osprey - A dumb brute and a layabout. Guardians , in other words, playing at a heroism that they had not earned.


Eleod snapped out of his internal grumbling; that distinctive sound was the distinctive thunderbang of an immensely powerful laser weapon.

Terry keeled over, struck down, a clean, dark hole in his armor.

Terry was down, something having pierced his suit of unbreakable plastic. There was a faint stench of ozone in the air; a small curl of smoke rose from the super Seraphim-suited superhero known as the Shield.

Across the room from our heroes stood three who would oppose them.

“Well I’ll be a sock-eyed mule! When my friendly local arms dealer told me I had to buy me a ‘wondershot crossbow’ when I told him I needed the biggest, baddest laser he had, I looked at him like he had sprouted a second head. But DA-YUM!”

That would be the first one, the gunslinger called Beretta. Some parts of her getup were straight out of central casting: the cowboy hat, the long duster jacket, even the boots – though Roxanne knew from their fight at the droid slave auction that those boots were rocket-powered. On Beretta’s left was a giant beast of rock and stone, a living landslide; at first glance Roxanne took it for a Reklar, but it had only two arms, and the shape was much more human than simian, with a sad, somber visage. But on Beretta’s left was instantly recognized by Roxanne: her sister, Ariela.

Beretta leveled the wondershot crossbow at Roxanne’s head; despite the weapon’s power, it had quite a long recycle time. “I’m fixin’ to put you six feet under, sugar,” she said. “Let’s see you do your bracelet trick to this bad bitch.” A grin drew across the gunslinger’s face as she lined up a headshot.

“Hold,” said Ariela, raising her hand. “This is my sister. I wish to offer her Ehrezug – the opportunity for honorable retreat.”

“You’re going to….let her walk away?” asked the gunslinger, dumbounfed. “…that’s dumb as dirt, bless your heart,” she muttered. “Best to just kill ‘em all and be done with it.”

“You would speak to a Daughter of Zahd in such a manner?” protested Ariela.

ARIELA TRICK-SKIN! ” thundered Roxanne with a voice like a thousand shrieking storms. “ YOU WOULD DARE SPEAK OF HONOR, DARE INVOKE GREATFATHER’S ZAHD’S NAME, AFTER WHAT YOU HAVE DONE!?

Ariela sighed. Family was always so exasperating, even the ones you liked. “It’s…good to see you, too, sister,” she said. “But you should take my offer of ehrezug . Take your wounded friend and go. With the Shield down, you lack your strongest warrior, and your caster friends will find their magic will have no purchase here.”

A groan emanated from Terry, the servos and mechanisms of his battlesuit coughing and wheezing as he stood up. “You’ll find that the Shield is not so easily bested,” he declared, triumphantly.

The hole in the armor was being filled with a jelly-like substance that rushed to the gap and rapidly solidified, re-sealing it and patching it up. Terry couldn’t help but remember that he had told Violante not to bother installing the GA Regular-issue GelSeal system in the suit, because Seraphim armor was already indestructible so there was no point in including a self-repair system. Clearly, it was a good thing that Violante did it anyway. Unfortunately, there was a limited amount of sealant, and the hard gel was nowhere near as durable as Seraphim plastic; he couldn’t take many more hits like that. The Vanguard energy shield module unfolded, and Terry positioned it carefully; he wasn’t about to be caught off guard again.

Roxanne tossed her long braids back, smirking a bit. “We’re not leaving without Fara.”

Ariela shook her head. “She seems like a…sweet girl,” she said. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“You’re ‘sorry’!?” spat Roxanne. “You gave a Mana Seed, a primordial piece of the world-power itself, to an insane madman, you betrayed our Father and our family, you consorted with thuggish mercenaries, and you would bar the way between myself and Fara? And you’re ‘sorry’? What soft and unwarriorlike sentiment! Do you even have the fortitude to face me as a true Walkuren ? Ariela Lying-Tongue, Roxanne North-Star has come before you to punish you for your multitude of transgressions! You face the finest warrior of all Zahd’s daughters, the victor of Shang Nan and Egmont, wielder of the Great Lance Daedalus, and…” and, here, Roxanne paused, and her countenance softened, a bit sad, “…and…protector, guardian, and guide of all lost travelers.”

Ariela shook her head. “Fine, then,” she said. “ Aristeia it is, sister. Though my list of titles may not match yours, you will find that my fighting skills MORE than match yours.” Ariela hoisted her double-bladed staff, Maidenleaf.

The rock monster opened his mouth, and a crackle like a thousand boulders rumbled.

“No,” insisted Ariela. “This is an aristeia duel. It’s a matter between two warriors. If you interfere, the dishonor will be very great.”

“That’s your lil’ red wagon to pull, not mine!” protested Beretta. “I can’t say I give a hootenanny about your honor…”

Ariela’s gaze alone cut the gunslinger off.

“Fine, fine, have it your way,” Beretta muttered, shaking her head. “Hell’s bells, this has got to be the weirdest damned job I’ve ever taken…but this dueling hoojima you’re doing, it don’t matter none if I deal with her friends, right?”

“You would miss this chance to witness a clash of two legendary warriors?” asked Ariela. “Such a duel between the Daughters of Zahd is a rare event, indeed – perhaps once in a generation you will see such a struggle!”

“…it’s been a long day, and if it’s all the same to y’alls, I’d really rather just put them in the ground, get paid, and move on to a job without so much weird-ass magic shit,” answered Beretta.

Ariela flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Sellswords,” she muttered under her breath. “Never could stand them.”

The Valkyries, stately, regal – godlike—approached each other, holding their legendary weapons.

It was then Eleod acted, laying down a spell of darkness, encasing the gunslinger in a large pitch-black sphere.

“Shield, get the big guy,” the dwarf bellowed. “Osprey, find Fara.”

“Eleod…” started Terry.

“As we used to say in the Great War, shit has hit the fan,” shouted Eleod. “These fuckers are all packing Reflect Rings, which is keeping their faces decidedly un-melted at this particular moment in time. I’ll get the laser-blazer off your back, but you need to deal with the stone titan, and Osprey needs to find Fara before it’s too late.”

“Got it!” nodded Osprey, throwing down a smoke bomb – even without magic, he was plenty stealthy. Privately, he relished this chance to practice his abilities without the crutch of shadow magic and rely on pure skill.

Terry hit his engines, charging the rocky giant in front of him like something superhuman.

The battle beneath Albrook had begun.

Terry couldn’t argue with the logic of him being the one to take on the living mountain that stood before him. The towering avalanche still had a roughly humanoid shape and countenance, though it stood nearly seven feet tall. The dark light of the chamber flickered across its rocky exterior, and the creature’s granite expression turned from sadness to a grimace, revealing diamond-etched teeth. Whatever it was, it was glad to have this chance to fight.

Terry charge the elemental fiend, gravitic beatsticks out, his rocket boosters giving him a powerful charge, looking to deliver a powerful bum-rush attack and knock the beast out of the fight quickly so he could help his friends.

The fiend sidestepped him easily, even gracefully.

It was at that moment that Terry truly realized he was not fighting some dumb beast or reckless monster acting on instinct – he was dueling with someone with a fighter’s training, someone who had even faced him before. He flashed back to the time in the pyra den, facing off against a scarlet-clad fencer who had all-too-easily turned him into stone despite his defenses.

The fiend – the “fencer” – formed his hand into a giant stoney mace and bashed the Shield along the arc of his momentum, smashing him into a wall. The wall cracked and crumbled before the velocity of the plastic-suited hero.

Turning both his hands into rocky diamond-hard hammers, the fiend began to pummel on Terry’s back.

Terry knew that there were certain anti-Seraphim weapons (developed by the Scandians) that operated on the principle not of penetrating the armor, but of smashing it around so much that the pilot inside was rendered unconscious, a bloody bruised mess. (Violante had explained this to Terry using a bunch of Scandian military acronyms which he didn’t fully understand, and then she tried some math which he also didn’t understand, but as soon as she said “it’s like hitting an armored knight with a Warhammer,” he understood perfectly.) The armor might be able to take this kind of beating all day long, but the fleshy bits inside almost certainly couldn’t.

With a rocket-assisted jump, Terry cleared the wall and launched himself over the elemental fiend, landing behind him. With a thrust of one of his beatsticks, he blasted off a chunk of rock.

The fiend roared and faced him, extending its arm in a landslide swipe. The sheer force of the blow knocked Terry back, and he struggled to keep his footing, even though his energy shield had taken the worst of the blow. Without his Seraphim armor, such a strike would surely have broken every bone in his body.

The elemental fiend turned its arms into diamond-tipped stalactites, and rushed Terry again, this time clearly aiming for the GelSeal patch from Terry’s earlier wound; Terry brought down the Vanguard Shield Module, the hard-light construct buckler deflecting the thrust.

Terry unleashed his heat-powered eye-beams, giving the fiend a full blast. The red-hot energy lanced from his visor, giving the fiend a face full of hot laser; the rocky beast’s head turned black, like volcanic ash, and roared in agony.

Terry had pissed Marcus off.

With a wail like the tectonic plates shifting, Marcus raised his mighty leg and stomped it into the ground with a shockwave that split the earth and reverberated with the epicenter of an earthquake – the shaking earth broke glass displays of artifacts, shattered ancient Xsian vases, knocked people off balance in the other two fights, and forced Terry to take flight.

It was becoming clear to Terry that one single blow – even a big hit like his eye-lasers—wasn’t going to be enough. It would take repeated blows to pulverize this mountain into gravel.

Marcus attacked again, with twin diamond lances thrusting for Terry’s weak spot. Terry had to dodge vertically; against two angles of attack, it was hard to parry.

Although he had never practiced in the highly-specific scenario of fighting a former fencing prodigy fused with an elemental spirit of gnome to create a Fiend of Earth, he had practiced the basic premise of fighting an enemy with superior reach against Roxanne dozens if not hundreds of times. The essential idea was to parry, ideally knocking the opponent off balance, and get inside the guard.

This should be easy fighting a big, slow, rock monster. But Terry wasn’t fighting just a big, slow, rock monster; inside it was the mind of a swordfighter the equal of Osprey or Fara.

Marcus thrust with a lance, and Terry tried just as he had practiced countless times against Roxanne – block with the shield, get inside the guard – but Marcus swatted him out of the sky with his other fist on the form of a massive Warhammer. Marcus now had Terry off balance and cornered, and began pounding on the suit with twin maces, hitting with all the force and pressure of a volcanic eruption.

Imagine a car crash where one car is indestructible. One would think the driver of the indestructible car to be perfectly safe. This is not entirely true; without a seatbelt, in a collision the driver of the indestructible car is likely to be launched forward and splatter on the indestructible windshield. Seraphim, that wondrous, angelic, indestructible plastic protects against all kinds of penetration – but the laws of physics still demand shifts in momentum.

Although Terry wore a layer of cushioning between himself and the actual Seraphim suit, when the suit was hit with enough force, all of that force was transferred directly to himself , who was, after all, still a normal human being. Seraphim plastic was indestructible, but also inelastic and unmalleable – Marcus’s blows were causing blunt force trauma by bludgeoning the suit with enough power. He felt bruised and sore; his skin wasn’t broken, but the hits were probably causing internal bleeding. Terry couldn’t help but be reminded of a Guardian Knight in the Middle Ages attacked by a Warhammer. This suit could be his cage, his tomb.

Terry did his best to protect his head with his shield; a concussion would end the fight. He wracked his brains – he wasn’t fighting a beast, he was fighting a man.

What did he know about Marcus Heinkel?

There previous encounter had been brief, almost too brief to give him much insight into the man’s fighting style. But he remembered what Fara had said about him – that in his high school days he had been handsome, impossibly gorgeous, the kind of boy that she never imagined she was good enough to date.

Terry muttered a one-word command into the suit: “Mirror.” His Vanguard energy shield module switched from its usual translucent blue electrical crackling to a perfectly reflective shield.

Marcus saw himself in the mirror, and what he saw was not the beautiful boy he once was, but, a fiend of earth, a craggy beast – a monster of mana. He didn’t even have hair any more.

His hesitation was brief, but it was decisive. Terry surged forward, using the edge of his shield to slice cut at Marcus’s arm. He hit with both beat sticks, blowing large rocks off of Marcus’s exterior.

Marcus bellowed, but Terry didn’t stop, didn’t let up; he unleashed a flurry of blows, pounding into the fiend of earth, the being that was once just a Tasnican boy from the city of Egmont, pulverizing it as the graviton-powered blows reverberated through the chamber.

Eleod should’ve known that the Master would kit all his minions with Reflect Rings.

Reflect Rings weren’t exactly common in the Web – even the Secret Imperial Society didn’t have enough to issue one to every lowly Initiate – but for a high-stakes confrontation where he knew the other side would have a mage, the Master could damn well find three. In fact, Eleod wouldn’t be surprised if there was another one in a glass case somewhere here in his exhibit hall.

There were a few main ways around Reflect Rings (and Reflect and Wall spells, for that matter). The main one, the one they teach you in Magic Theory 101, is that the reflect spell only affects the person wearing it. It was possible to cast spells on the environment around it. There was an old joke about a Black Mage who burned down the house of his enemy with a Reflect Ring.

As a Shadow Priest, Eleod was at a bit of a disadvantage here – many of Shade’s spells affected the enemy’s mind, and all of them would be bounced by the reflection spell. So a number of the spells in his repertoire were out totally – no mindflay, mindbomb, mindsear, psychic scream, or the like. Even the signature Dark Force spell, attacking the enemy with orbs of negative-force, was useless against someone with a reflect ring.

Eleod couldn’t blind the gunslinger directly; he had to create a sphere of darkness around her. Which caused a problem, because there was nothing to stop her from just walking out of it.

She didn’t just walk out of it – she rocketed upward, with the jet boosters concealed in her cowboy boots. Of course, flight negated Eleod’s tar patch spell (one of his favorites – he had used it against Marcus.)

“I reckon’ I made a mistake,” she said. “Pappy always said: ‘Shoot the mage first.’ But lil ol’ me with me new toy, well, I just HAD to see if it could take down the famous Shield hisself.”

Eleod dived into cover behind a display case– despite all the mystical power, his Great War service had taught him that the safest way to evade gunfire was still quite mundane. He made sure to pick a particularly sturdy containment case, one reinforced with steel and concrete, labeled “Chained Essence of Stormlord Dregnin.”

While there, he had time to assume a shadowform, wreathing himself in shadowy power and reaching out to the elemental essence of darkness. The normally stolid dwarf became gauzy, insubstantial. Eleod felt his connection to the primal elemental planes of magic heightened.

The air crackled as a bolt from the wondershot crossbow reduced the Eleod’s reinforced cover to dust. A thunderclap erupted from the case, a flash of lightning, a rumble of a hurricane, and a blast of wind that knocked the flying gunslinger to the ground. There was a howl, a blast, something like a blizzard wrapped in a tornado, and for a moment it seemed that the whole chamber might be consumed in a galeforce hailstorm – but just as quick it was gone, like a cloudy day parting to reveal the sun.

Eleod ducked for cover behind another exhibit. “Damn kid,” he grumbled. “ever think blowing up something labeled ‘Chained Essence of Stormlord Dregnin’ would have unforeseen consequences, perhaps further down the road?”

Beretta was also grumbling as she picked herself off the ground and dusted herself off. “…man, this contract is a real wing-dinger,” muttered Beretta. “Shoulda just extended the Brush job. They were real sweeties over in Brush. They always paid on time, and I didn’t have to deal with any of this weird-ass magic shit…” Beretta shifted the heavy crossbow to one hand, and searched in her duster jacket for her thermographic goggles in case that salty dwarf tried any of his darkness tricks. She stamped her feet – the storm-blast had knocked something loose in her jet-boots.

Eleod sensed his chance and stepped out from cover, stamping the Staff of Eternal Darkness on the ground. Spreading like an oil stain, a great yawning pit sprouted, shadowy claws darting up from underneath. The unearthly howl of raging shadowfiends screamed through the air, eager shade-beasts leaping up and out of the dark pit like ravenous piranhas.

Acting on instinct, Beretta dove for cover – though of course it would do no good. The oil-stain would catch her soon – already the starving gloom-monsters were snatching everything in sight and pulling it down into the darkness.

While the gunslinger was pinned, Eleod frantically searched the display cases. Although he was impressed with his handiwork – he had never whipped up a dark pit quite so pants-wettingly terrifying—he knew it wouldn’t be enough, probably not for the mercenary, and definitely not for the others. There had to be another reflect ring around here somewhere….

Hiding behind a display case as the cries of the shrieking shadow eels pierced the air, Beretta tried to get it together. She tried to tell herself that she’d been in worse situations. She tried to think of her very fat bank account. She tried to think of her mother’s fresh peach cobbler, one of her few happy childhood memories.

She glanced over her cover; the shadowfiend-pool had swallowed almost the whole floor in front of her, the dark beasts ripping everything to shreds they could get their hands on, and the taste of peach cobbler and even her fat bank account fled her mind with the slow realization that soon, that would be her, torn limb from limb and pulled down into the darkness.

What had that damned ‘Master’ said in one of his interminable ‘lessons’? The cardinal rule of elemental combat – like elements protect, opposite elements damage. And here was a big-ass shadow magic spell, and she had a weapon built to launch light itself.

Beretta rigged the Wondershot crossbow to overload, and chucked it into the pit of shades. The weapon’s Sunstone power source discharged all at once in a solarflare explosion; the dark beasts shrieked and howled their dismay as the pit collapsed in a bright flash of light.

Eleod curses under his breath while continuing to scan for what he needed. Normally, located a magical item like this should be easy – but there was so many other items, so much background count, so many other magical fireworks going off, it was taking a lot longer than it should.

At least now the gunslinger no longer had her light-based weapon; Eleod could drink deep of the power of Shade, assuming the full power of shadowform. Shadowform also partly severed his connection to the material plane, rendering him partially intangible.

Beretta was sick of this – the dwarf seemed to be wandering aimlessly, now, and so it was time for her trusty old reliable magnum revolvers. Messing around from all these Kuat geegaws and freaking laser beams from Guardia was fun for a little while, but at the end of the day there was no substitute for good, honest, Western hand cannons.

It had been a long time since the Great War, but Eleod’s instincts were as sharp as ever. He could tell when he was about to be fired upon – instinctively expelling a spell of shadowy ink, obscuring his position as he pumped his stunty dwarven legs.

Beretta unloaded. She didn’t really care if the dwarf was behind cover, or if he was wearing armor – a hit from one of these bullets would drop most anyone. She grinned as the satisfying bang-crack of her bullets whistled through the air – ain’t no sound as sweet in the whole wide web!

When the smoke and shadow magic cleared, the dwarf was doubled over on the ground. Beretta briefly considered helping the others – Earth-fiend Marcus’s fight with the Shield still raged – but she drew closer, knowing it was better to confirm the kill. Satisfied as she was, she was so ready to be done with this fucking job.

She reloaded the revolver, and aimed it down. “Bless your heart, you gave me quite a tussle,” she said. “This ain’t personal, ya know. But a girl’s gotta make a living.”

There were, broadly speaking, two ways to attack someone under the protection of a Reflect Ring or similar effect with magic. The first, and easiest, was to use magical to attack the environment. The second, slightly more risky, maneuver lied in a weird quirk of these kinds of protective spells: they could not reflect a spell which had already been reflected.

Doubled over in hiding, Eleod clutched his newly acquired Reflect Ring, pilfered from the Master’s treasury. Casting a spell ON HIMSELF would ping it off of him and onto someone else in the room.

It PROBABLY wouldn’t hit either Valkyrie, who were after all half-God and didn’t quite play by the same rules. And it PROBABLY wouldn’t hit Marcus either, now that he was part-Elemental being himself. So there was a 50/50 chance, more or less, that this spell would hit the gunslinger – or Terry.

Eleod said a little prayer to Luna, Elemental of the Moon, who ruled all luck, fate and chance.

He heard the CLICK as Beretta cocked the gun, leveled at Eleod’s head.

Eleod invoked the shadow word of pain.

And this time, at least, the Elementals had smiled on him.

Beretta screamed, her every pain receptor surging with agony. She felt the shadowy energy assaulting her, in her mouth, her ears, her pores, her mind . She fell to her knees, but clutched her guns in her hands, hoping against hope that they could provide some measure of protection, that she could SHOOT the tiny dark orbs filling her body.

Eleod stood up, triumphant, haughty even. He stood eye to eye with the gunslinger, starting into eyes that were framed by a melting face. In spite of himself, Eleod’s face turned upward into a cruel grin. He felt satisfied – vindicated – that the old strength had not left him. With his meaty dwarven hand he ripped the Reflect Ring off the gunslinger’s finger.

And now there was so much he could do – so much sweet torture he could inflict, dark orbs and evil gates…the full breadth of his dark shadowy power could be brought to bear.

How many poor farmboys had he flayed with his mind, back in the war? In the movies and stories, they always show the Grand Army fighting fanatics – the worst of the worst –but anyone who was there knew that the Dark Was filled with conscripts, brought forth by threats of violence or promise of treasure to face the terrifying and perfect white and gold war machine.

How many of those poor boys had Eleod killed, personally? It hadn’t started that way – he was on the hunt for Banelings. But after seeing the Banelings murder one too many of his comrades, Galgann had suggested that the Busters sneak on over to the Dark Wrath trenches and lay waste.

How many poor sods had they murdered that night? Hundreds? The soldiers with their little flashlight m-tek rifles couldn’t do anything, and their screams filled the Trianable night until finally, a Baneling had appeared to try to end the massacre – the unit’s first Baneling kill.

The woman’s scream snapped Eleod back for a moment. This gunslinger was no Baneling, no Graulemn. Not even a member of the Society, by the look of it. Just a broken soul, brought a far way from home by desperate fear or necessity.

The war was over, and Eleod was not a soldier anymore.

Eleod cracked the Staff of Eternal Darkness across her head, knocking Beretta unconscious. For safety’s sake, he stuck her to the ground with a good shadowy tar patch and took her guns.

If he could spare Banelings, there was no reason to murder this poor, confused sod from West.

One doesn’t kill slaves, one frees them – by killing the Master.

[For this fight, you kind of have to play https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a53s4jyCqqU. Maybe not the Wagner you would expect, but it is the right one.–Ed.]

Roxanne was a little bit surprised that Ariela had accepted her aristeia challenge.

Perhaps, it was true, every Valkyrie, deep in their heart, believed themselves the fiercest warrior of all Zahd’s children – but this was a title Roxanne had some claim to, though it had been an age since Zahd had pitted his daughters against each other in gladiatorial combat to earn his affections. Roxanne had not won the title of grand champion – Isgird was without peer that fateful day, challenging even Zahd himself – but she had put in a respectable and honorable showing.

Ariela had not even competed. What would have been the point? She was the Valkyrie most famous for losing combats and taking men to bed. No one would have ever confused her for a warrior.

And yet…

And yet now that Ariela ‘Open Legs’ was in front of her, hoisting her double-bladed sword ‘Maidenleaf’, Roxanne knew that Ariela was a warrior born surely as any of her sisters. The footwork, the efficient movement, the determined look on her face – this was not going to be so easy a fight as Roxanne thought.

Roxanne thrust with the Daedalus lance, probing forward, but Ariela knocked it aside with her own weapon and was inside Roxanne’s guard before she knew it. Ariela unleashed a spinning kick (when did she ever learn that kind of karate? That wasn’t in any of the stories.)

Ariela smiled. “Not prepared to fight today, sister?” she chided. “Or perhaps you find my skill far exceeds my reputation…?”

“Silence, trickskin!” bellowed Roxanne, punching forward with the mid of the spear’s shaft to try to force her back, get some distance.

Ariela thrust her own weapon forward, locking blades. “Did it ever occur to you, Roxanne Heavensguide, that I lost all those fights on purpose ? That I wanted to take those lovers? That I wanted their affection, their touch, their breath, much more than I wanted some pointless victory?”

“You make a mockery of the Walkuren !” growled Roxanne, putting her full back into the lock and forcing Ariela back.

“Why?” Ariela regained her footing, and put her weapon on guard. “Why am I such a disgrace? Because I made love instead of war?”

“You disobeyed Seafather Zahd!” thundered Roxanne, throwing her lance at Ariela’s head, meaning to end it – but Ariela, too quick, knocked it aside and the deadly lance impaled itself on the wall.

Roxanne’s guard was down, and Ariela pressed that attack, with a sweeping cut across the abdomen. Roxanne stepped back, but just an instant too late, as the very edge of the blade cut her stomach-skin. A mere flesh wound – but when was the last time any opponent had managed to do this to Roxanne?

“First blood,” said Ariela. “Again, I offer you ehrezug . You may leave with your honor. I don’t want to kill the only sister I actually like.”

Ariela’s words cut Roxanne more deeply than her blade. For an instant, one part of Roxanne – the modern, genteel, ‘Tasnican’ Roxanne that was a professor and drove sports cars and loved Space Battles – thought they should just lay down their arms and talk it all over. But then she remembered Fara, and once again she was the alte Taznikanze Roxanne who was the war-god’s daughter, sworn protector and defender of all lost souls, and bound by blood-oath to bring this traitor to justice.

The Daedalus Lance returned to her hands, and Roxanne readied her attack.

“…very well,” said Ariela, a note of melancholy in her voice. “Though, do tell me sister – how long has it been since you have taken a lover?”

In all her thousands of years, Roxanne had only been defeated three times – and thus had only taken a lover three times. “Is this aristeia , or girl gossip?” spat Roxanne, vaulting forward on her spear.

Ariela, momentarily surprised, was hit by Roxanne’s flying kick, knocked off-balance, though she let out a chortle. “Is there someone new in your life, sister? I am truly happy for you, if this is so.”

Roxanne could remember the stories behind each of her lovers, and she could intimately remember each of the battles that led to her defeat. But the lovemaking – she knew it had happened, but couldn’t remember the touch, the scent, the feelings.

Thousands of years was a long time to live.

“For what it’s worth,” said Ariela, playing defensively, “I’m glad it’s you they sent for me, North Star. I think, perhaps alone among our sisters, you would be the one to understand.”

Roxanne charged forward with a spinning attack, unable to resist a bit of wushu flourish. “What’s to understand?” she roared. “You stole a seed! You betrayed Father!”

Ariela parried – though not perfectly, as Roxanne had made a little cut of her own. “Huh,” said Ariela. “You learned that one from that Xsian Sage you were so fond of? I remember he was quite the wit – I don’t think I’d ever seen you laugh so hard!”

Roxanne’s mind briefly flashed back to the Xsian sage – Genruo the Eternal Seer – known to history as the author of the Canon of Changes, though Roxanne always remembered him for his dry humor and fantastic cooking – to this day, Roxanne detested eating Fabulian food, as it seeming a pale imitation of Genruo’s exquisite art.

“He’s gone now,” Roxanne said, and she hated Ariela for making her remember Genruo, remembering his spectral form vanishing ephemerally at daybreak, and her sadness at the memory hardened into contempt, contempt she made into armor to fight against the traitor.

“They all die,” said Ariela. “All of them. You know, one of my nicer nicknames is ‘Ariela of the Thousand Lovers.’ But they’re all dead. They all turn to dust, eventually.”

“You try to confuse me, silvertongue!” roared Roxanne, and charged Ariela again like something superhuman. Roxanne let loose a war-cry – no longer under the illusions about her opponent’s skill – and surged forward, the war-god’s thunder pulsing in her veins, feeling strong and powerful and hate-filled.

And yet Ariela held – in fact, she let the attack in even as she deflected it, bringing Roxanne’s face close to hers, nearly touching.

“Tell me, Roxanne, daughter of Zahd – do you remember your mother?” asked Ariela.

Roxanne scrunched her face. “The stories say she was named Sigrun and she was steel maiden to the great warlord –“

Ariela pulled Roxanne in, closer. “I don’t care what the stories say,” she said. “I didn’t ask that. I asked….do you REMEMBER ?”

Roxanne did not. Her human mother had passed away millennia ago – long before the Web, before the Republic, in a time before time. She knew the name, because she had heard the story of how the God of War had taken a liking to a particular steel maiden and had his way with her. In the story, Roxanne’s mother Sigrun was a brave woman, a noble fighter with long blonde hair – but who knew if any of that was true?

“I remember my mother,” said Ariela. “At least, I…I think I do. Her name was Dunia, and she was a baker….I remember being young, tiny and small. I had a sister named Klarissa – not a Valkyrie, a human sister. We would always play dice games with the fisherman’s boy – I think Klarissa married him, in time…” Ariela’s face looked determined, inward. “It’s hard to remember, it’s a long time ago…but one thing I do remember – my Mother was kind to me and my sister. She held us and hugged and kissed us and sang us to sleep….and every Yuletide she worked so hard to make sure we had the best stollen …even during the famine years, she gave us food and a house full of love…”

Roxanne pushed her back. “You’re babbling, speaking tongues to try to trick me,” she said. “What’s all this nonsense about lost lovers and dead mothers have to do with anything? You try to obfuscate your crimes, but you cannot escape Zahd’s justice!!”

And yet – Ariela could just spin and parry anything Roxanne did. She’d seen it all – there seemed to be no attack Roxanne could conceive that Ariela did not know the counter to.

“Let’s drop this pretense,” Ariela said. “It’s not about father. You’re here for the girl.”

Roxanne gritted her teeth. “She’s the Mana Knight.”

“She’s not [i[ just [/i] the Mana Knight to you, is she?” taunted Ariela, twirling away. “You always do this, you know.”

“Do what?” boomed Roxanne. “Guiding heroes and lost souls is my calling, my place in the firmament…”

“Not that,” said Ariela, stepping inside Roxanne guard to deliver a knee kick that briefly staggered Roxanne. “You always make a family.”

Roxanne was stunned, more by her words than her knee-blow.

“Oh, sure,” Ariela continued, going to work with her elbow-axe inside Roxanne’s guard. “They’re not a normal family – a broken down superhero, an amusing bird-man, and a plucky little girl from Egmont. But they’re your family. You watch movies together, even when Osprey wants to watch that stupid samurai flick again. You helped Terry find the strength to be a hero again. And Fara? Well, for Fara you’ve come here to kill me…”

Roxanne collapsed, her body bruised, pummeled, beaten, Ariela’s words and blows striking true. “…then why?” she asked. “Why, sister? Why do you come between me and my…family?”

“Because they’re all dead anyway,” sighed Ariela. “Maybe not today, or tomorrow…but in a hundred years, or two hundred years, when you have aged barely a day, they will all be dust, dead in the ground.”

Roxanne clawed to Ariela’s feet and got a good grip – thankfully, Ariela hadn’t learned the Sabin Suplex, and Roxanne drove her skull into the ground. “So, that’s it, then?” she said. “Kill them now, because they’re all going to die anyway?”

Ariela was stunned and dizzy – Roxanne was also battered, running on a thin fume of contempt. Privately, Roxanne begged her sister to stay down.

Ariela popped to her feet. “No, no, you misunderstand me, sister,” she said. “Your deep connection to mortalkind is one thing I always admired about you. Perhaps, among all Zahd’s daughters, only you and I truly love Man’s World, and all that is in it.” Ariela unscrewed the center shaft of Maidenleaf, turning it into a chain-whip style weapon. (Roxanne had no idea it could do that.)

“What’s the game, then?” demanded Roxanne, thrusting again – but Ariela used Maidenleaf’s chains to wrap up her blade. “Why take the seed? Why anger Father? You could have lived in and out of ten thousand years, taking all the lovers you wanted!”

“No games,” said Ariela. “And what I want is an end to this cursed existence – born of God and mortal, yet living in between, neither fully one or the other.”

Roxanne’s eyes narrowed, and she gasped. “So that’s it,” she said, pulling her lance free. “I never thought that you would be so arrogant, Ariela, as to desire godhood!”

In spite of the dire situation, Ariela laughed – and in spite of it, Roxanne could not help but find her laughter a little charming, warm even. “No, sister, not godhood,” she said.


“….why?” asked Roxanne, dumb-struck.

“Why?” asked Ariela. “Why? WHY? Because I want love and life and a family! I want to marry a good man and grow old with him! I want to raise children, and be proud of them! I want to spend a life with with friends and loved ones – and someday, someday before I see everything I love vanish and turn to dust, be put to my forever rest, cherished by my children, and my children’s children.”

Roxanne steeled her rage. “For this…stupid, sentimental cause…you’ve put us all in grave danger!”

“I’ve given a Seed to some self-important conjurer, so what?” Ariela protested. “A Seed to give my barren womb life, and a Sword to cut the cord of divinity and give me my true freedom!”

“…that’s, that’s not what’s in our stars, dead sister,” said Roxanne. “This place, this world…it’s not for us…”

“…but, don’t you want to be a part of it?” asked Ariela. “Not skirting the edge of it jumping in and out of ten thousand years, but TRULY a part of it?”

Roxanne was silent at first, and the silence spoke volumes.

“You’re right, Ariela,” she said. “If it had been another besides me – grim-faced Gabriela or keen-eyed Astrid – they would not understand.”

Ariela cocked her head. “But you do. I knew you would.”

Roxanne no longer cared that Ariela had betrayed Zahd – the great and terrible god of war and the seas was no loving father. But, in place of her hatred and anger there was growing an awareness – if Roxanne failed to stop Ariela here, Fara was certainly doomed, and probably Terry, Osprey, and Eleod, too.

“But you understand, Ariela,” said Roxanne, “that I can’t allow anyone to harm my family.”

“I know,” she said. “More than know, I…I understand . But…we’re family, too, Sister,” said Ariela.

“Yes,” said Roxanne. “And as your sister, and the guide to all those who are lost – I’m sorry. It…didn’t have to be this way.” Roxanne cursed herself – an all the millennia she and Ariela had shared, she had seldom seen her, much less bothered to get to know her, to be her friend, to be her sister. If all she wanted was mortality – to truly become a part of Man’s World – there had to have been a better way.

Ariela sighed, and then she laughed a bit. “Shikata ga nai – it cannot be helped. Gods, I hated it so much when Isokaru used to say that…”

Roxanne could not help but laugh and grin a bit, too. “Shikata ga nai – that sounds like something out of one of Osprey’s samurai movies!”

A moment passed, and the laughter turned to silence, a silence that turned the chamber into a tomb smelling of death. The other fights in the chamber had finished, but it did not matter – this was aristeia , honorable single combat between evenly matched warriors on the field of battle, and aristeia between Valkyries was the sort of thing that could only be witnessed once in a generation.

“Sister,” said Roxanne, “now it is I who offer you honorable retreat. You have fought bravely and well – from this day forward, let the skalds sing that Ariela is no less a fierce warrior than lover.”

“You honor me, sister,” said Ariela. “But I’m not leaving the only chance I’ve ever known for the only thing I truly want.”

Roxanne sighed. “So be it, true-hearted Ariela,” she said, “let’s end this, then.”

Ariela charged. Roxanne parried, forced back. Her mind no longer clouded by rage, Roxanne saw an opening – at last, she knew how to win. She abandoned the offensive; Ariela eagerly charged in, overextended. Ariela was a whirling maelstrom, upon Roxanne from all angles – the victory-scent in her nose, the blades of Maidenleaf swinging round and scratching at Roxanne’s back.

And, in the middle of it all – an opening, a weak point, a vulnerable spot. Roxanne swing the great polearm and opened a gash just beneath her chest, and then, with all of her demigod might, thrust the lance deep through Ariela’s body.

The vanquished Valkyrie pulled the spear deeper, coming closer to Roxanne, her blood dripping on the floor.

“Oh, Sister,” Ariela said, “….I suppose this is the end of my dream, isn’t it?”

“Rest now, Ariela,” said Roxanne. “Rest, noble daughter of Dunia…”

“I…am glad,” said Ariela. “I…am glad it’s you, North Star…and I am glad…that we had this time together…” She coughed blood, “though…my children would’ve been so beautiful…you would’ve made a wonderful auntie, dear sister…”

And thus was how Roxanne – North Star, Heavensguide, wielder of the Daedalus Lance, mentor of a dozen heroes and scourge of countless battlefields – came to defeat Ariela – the baker’s daughter.

Terry and Eleod gathered close to Roxanne, Ariela’s body on the ground.

“Is she…?” asked Terry.

“Our kind was not born to die,” answered Roxanne, her answer heavy in her gullet. “…but she will not bother us any further.” Roxanne clutched her lance, and her eyes settled on Eleod, warily.

“What?” grumbled Eleod. “Even after everything, you still don’t trust me?”

“I just had to put down my sister,” snarled Roxanne, “I’m not in a trusting mood.”

“We DO trust you, Eleod,” insisted Terry, “but I think we also deserve some answers.”

“NOW?” growled Eleod. “We have no time for this nonsense.”

“….see, that kind of evasive answer doesn’t exactly build trust,” said Roxanne. “It is AWFULLY STRANGE that you give a big speech about how only the evil secret society can use magic in this place, and then bust out a bunch of magic yourself.”

Eleod pursed his lips beneath his beard, his eyes filled with shame.

Footsteps –slow, measured, calm – and then a voice, proud, patriarchal, filling the chamber. “It’s obvious, though, isn’t it?”

Enter the Master of Mana, Guru of the Mystic Arts, Lord of the Twelve Elements, the Sagacious One, his wizened old figure cloaked in flowing robes but standing tall and proud. “It’s good to see you again, Eleod, though I had hoped our reunion would be under better circumstances.”

The heroes cocked themselves to battle-ready stance – but they were depleted and wounded from their earlier struggle. But the Master seemed utterly unafraid, or unperturbed at the defeat of his minions. He radiated supreme, graceful confidence.

Roxanne arched an eyebrow, shooting Eleod a sidelong glance. “You’re…on a first-name basis with our evil enemy…?”

The Master turned his head to Roxanne, “At last we meet, Roxanne Northstar. I must say that my encounters with your kind have always been….memorable.” And, finally, facing Terry. “And, Terence Shale, better known as ‘the Shield’. I am always interested to meet a disciple of the legendary Norstein Bekkler.”

Terry’s eyes narrowed behind his suit. “So you know my secret identity, then?”

The Master smiled, quizzically, behind his mustache. “What is ‘identity’, really? All the world’s a stage, and in his time, a man plays many parts…like Eleod, here; Brother Eleod….Great War veteran…father…husband…shadow priest…today, you style yourself a hero, but I remember you as The Ascended Shadowmancer of our most august Hermetic Order.”

“You’re….you’re one of them, Eleod?” Now Roxanne’s rage was focused inward – she had been such a fool. A fool and a failure. As the North Star, she was supposed to be the beacon and guide for all travelers, wanderers, and lost souls – and now her failure in that task was laid bare.

“What’s to know?” scoffed Eleod. “I joined them, I found out they’re evil, now I fight them. It’s not that gods-damned complicated.”

“Such Manicheanism doesn’t suit you, Ascended Shadowmancer,” taunted the Master. “I remember I found you….after the war…a broken man who could barely sleep because he could never close his eyes without seeing the faces of all his dead comrades…”

“You saw a tool you could use,” retorted Eleod. “Just like you’re using that poor boy you’ve turned into a rock monster, or Roxanne’s sister…just like you use everyone…!” Eleod’s anger filled the chamber; the dwarf looked ready to explode.

“You always did hide your fear behind a façade of anger,” chided the Master. “You’re lucky I found the girl, you know. You would’ve just turned her into another soldier. She would march where she was told to march, and kill who she was told to kill…and – like you – she would end with a shattered soul, haunted by fallen faces. It really is better for her, this way.”

Roxanne sighed. “…you were right, Eleod, this guy is a drama queen,” the Valkyrie muttered. She confronted the Master, lance at the ready. This dishonorable scum was beneath an aristeia challenge, of course, but magic users were always slippery, especially millennia- old nigh-immortal ones. “You will give us Fara immediately, unharmed. You will return the Mana Seed. Do this, and I will give you the clean warrior’s death you do not deserve.”

The Master laughed, a growling, rumbling, chuckle that filled the chamber. “Death….,” he began slowly, “death…is not the end. It is merely one of the elemental forces of mana. I am the Master of such forces.”

“ENOUGH!” Roxanne roared, and wailed like something superhuman, and let fly with her whole body, her every muscle a spring that launched the avenging Valkyrie forward, her lance extended, seeking purchase in the heart of the foul villain.

Her teeth gritted as, somewhat to her surprise, the blade of the Daedalus Lance pierced through the Master’s chest, the familiar feeling of bone and sinew gIving way before the spear’s sharp head.

The Master’s eyes locked with hers, his face upturned in a painful grimace, and then a limp body.

“Really?” came a voice, from behind Roxanne. “Did you think it would be so easy?”

The Master’s “body” disappointed into wispy, dark clouds.

“It’s a FAKE ,” growled Eleod.

“A shadow simulacrum,” remarked the Master’s voice. “Though, to be honest, I really expected you to see through it, Brother Eleod. I never would’ve been able to get such a shoddy illusion past you in the old days.”

There was no sign of the Master himself, besides that damned voice. Terry’s suit sensors reported nothing – nothing on motion sensors, nothing on thermographic, even audio didn’t detect the Master’s heartbeat.

“After all that, the so-called ‘Master’ won’t even give battle!” taunted Roxanne.

“If you believe this is actually a ‘battle’, you gravely misunderstand your situation,” came the Master’s voice, echoing through the chamber.

“Enough of this nonsense,” barked Eleod, livid with rage, cloaked in dark power, and deep into shadowform. “If you want to match me Shade against Shade, you’re an even more arrogant fool than I thought. I am the {b} priest [/b]. Your evil will not escape my sight!” And the dwarf slammed the Staff of Eternal Darkness into the ground, and an umbral flash engulfed the chamber.

Terry felt a chill down his spine, even safe inside his nigh-indestructible armor, as all his sensors picked up a new contact, and he turned to verify the target with the ‘mk 1 eyeball’.

There, at the far side of the chamber, was the Master, just as he was before: clad in multicolored flowing robes, a thin, braided fu manchu mustache framing lips upturned into a quizzical smile.

Slowly, confidently, ceremoniously, the Master extended his palm, and molecule by molecule, an elaborate, ornate golden hilt formed, and slowly but surely manifested a long, curbed, barbed blade. The Sword glinted in the dim light. Although none had seen it in this particular manifestation before, it was unmistakable.

“The Sword…he has the Mana Sword…” murmured Eleod, momentarily stunned out of his rage. ”Elements, help us…”

“…is…is that possible?” wondered Terry.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO FARA!??!?!” thundered Roxanne – not really a question but a war cry as she charged across the chamber, her lance flashing, her mind privately relishing the thought of this long-winded asshole’s neck breaking in her hands.

Roxanne never made it to her intended target.

Halfway across the room, her legs stuck. She struggled, pulled against it, almost on instinct, but the harder she thrashed with all her demigod strength, the harder the black, gooey tar pulled her down.

Her eyes darted to the Master, who raised an open hand and clenched his fist.

Shadowy tendrils sprang out of the pit, and pulled Roxanne down to dark blackness.

“I think you actually taught me that spell, Brother Eleod,” chided the Master. “The ‘tar pit’, you called it….there’s no point trying to kill a Valkyrie, of course – their kind is not born to die – but trapped for all eternity, encased in solid shade magic? Yes…I think the North Star will make a more than adequate replacement for the Chained Essence of Stormlord Drengin you so discourteously smashed…”

Eleod choked back his anger. Stupid, stupid old man…Eleod’s astral senses probed the Master’s tar pit spell for weaknesses…Eleod was a priest of shadow, and this was one of his signature spells. Oh great Shade, heed my call…

“No,” said the Master. “I think not.” The Mana Sword glowed bright red, and flames circled round free hand, coalescing into a glowing red-hot fireball. With a flick of his wrist, the searing globe roared across the chamber and sundered the air with a thunderous fwackoom as it collided with one very salty dwarf.

“Even I must concede, sometimes the classics are best.” The Master could not help but marvel a bit and how much the Sword had boosted his fireball – it shouldn’t be possible to lay out a magic user of Eleod’s caliber, beyond a reflect ring, with just one spell. But with the Sword at his side, all the magic defenses in the world mattered naught.

With Roxanne trapped and Eleod down, Terry stood alone. His mind raced – if he rushed the Master he would surely encounter some dodge or trap as Roxanne had. Running out of options, he opened fire with a max-charge, heat vision blast, the eye-lasers lancing through the room as the hiss of superheated air filled the chamber.

The wizened old mage glowed a bright red, the lasers hitting him, heating him, and then dissipating as Salamando’s fire protected him from harm.

“Predictable,” cackled the Master. “And…more than a little disappointing. All that technology and you’re no more a threat to me than the ancient Kracians with their bronze spears and fire-sticks!”

“You’re not the first to underestimate me,” retorted the Shield.

“On the contrary, I have very high hopes for you,” answered the Master. “But that will have to wait. Eleod will recover in a moment.” The Master waved the Sword, and Salamando’s fiery wreath turned to Undine’s watery countenance.

Terry felt an icy grasp, a chill through even through his suit, like someone walking over his grave – he tried to move, but his feet were already stuck, frozen fast. Terry only had an instant of realization before his whole suit was encased in a huge block of ice, the suit’s warnings blaring in his ears.

Eleod struggled to his feet. He struggled to breath; bleeding and burned, he fought through a red haze to avoid blacking out. Summoning shadowy power, he grunted as he unleashed a barrage of dark force orbs at the Master.

The Master simply batted them away with the Mana Sword. “My dear, misbegotten Brother….this is idiotic. Whether you came for the girl or for revenge, you will find only pain in this place. It would have been better if you stayed home with your wife.”

Eleod’s answer was to rip open a dark vortex – a magical black hole – that would crush and tear and shred everything it devoured. Eleod hadn’t used such magics since the Great War – it was a horrible and painful way to die.

The Master cleaved the dark vortex in twain. “You Great War types all have this problem, you know,” he said. “You could never stop fighting. You could never enjoy peace.”

“You’ve never fought for anything – never cared about anything – except yourself,” grumbled Eleod. “Something that took me far too long to realize.”

“I tried to help you, you know,” said the Master, sadly. “After the war, well…I think you and everyone else thought the end of the Great War would lead to some shining new utopia. That’s why….why you did what you did in the war, suffered what you suffered. But all you got was more war. I tried to show you another way – a way to use your magical talent, scholarly pursuits….”

“Bullshit,” coughed Eleod.

“You still see them, don’t you?” asked the Master. “Taesha Sunsong, who was torn in half by the flick of a baneling’s wrist? Gaevi Grayeye, who died so fast you didn’t even know it was happening? And Navarha…oh, if only you had been paying better attention that day, she would probably still be alive. And now…today, you add some new names to your list of failures: Roxanne Northstar. Terry Shale.” The Master grinned. “Fara Somers.”

Eleod raged, and his shadowform consumed him – more shade-elemental being than dwarf. “ I WILL MELT YOUR FACE AND SEAR YOUR MIND AND WHEN I AM THROUGH WITH YOU YOU WILL BEG FOR THE END OF YOUR LONG, MISERABLE EXISTENCE!

The Master’s grin grew wider – this was the moment he had waited for. Every Elemental has its opposite – and though most mages, summoners, or priests of necessity specialized, he was known as the Lord of the Twelve Elementals for a reason.

The Mana Sword ignited with Lumina’s light, and an instant a glowing lucent beam cut down the shadow-dwarf.

Struggling in his frozen suit, Terry redlined the reactor to get enough juice for another eye-powered heat-blast to melt his way out – and, once free, he confronted the Master of Mana, alone.

The wizened, bearded face regarded him from across the room. “I knew that wouldn’t hold you forever, of course,” he said. “But now, it’s just us, I’m hoping we can have a little chat,” he continued. Then, slowly, sonorously, he intoned, “are you ready for your lesson?”

“Less talking, more fighting.” Terry maxed his thrusters, still clogged with ice, intent on closing the gap to administer a grav-stick assisted beatdown.

“No, we shan’t be doing it that way,” sighed the Master, and with a circle of his hand whirling twisters of sylphid’s air blasts knocked him off-course, careening into a wall.

“I think, to begin our lesson,” said the Master. “It is important for you to understand that this confrontation is not on an equal level…you are but a student. But I am the Master.”

“…so you keep saying,” Terry stood up.

The Master opened his left palm, and Terry was surrounded by bright, luminous orbs, twelve in total.

“It took some…research to tweak the traditional lucent beam spell to pierce that…intriguing…Seraphim plastic,” he intoned. “But you can observe the fruits of my labor.” The Master clenched his hand, and lucent beams from each of the orbs pierced through the air, piercing the Seraphim suit, piercing Terry’s skin and organs.

And Terence Shale, the Shield, Captain Guardia, fell, impaled by a dozen spears of light.

“Terry….Terry….wake up, Terry!” a woman’s voice. A voice Terry recognized, though he didn’t believe it, even though he desperately wanted to.


“C’mon, Terry, ever since I met you in high school you were always a sleepyhead. But I’ve got to go, if you don’t get up, you’ll miss me.”

Her scent was in his nostrils – Terry at once relished it and felt a pang of pain. He had tried to forget. Tried to not think about it. But he could sense her, feel her – he had to see her. Struggling, he forced open his eyes.

And there she was, Yoshiko Morume, looking just as he remembered her – better than he remembered her, in fact. She was at once the adorkable nerd-girl he remembered from high school, the young adventurous newspaper writer, and the brave ZAPS agent they called Dreamer. And she was so {i} beautiful [/i]: lustrous dark hair gently framing her face, lustrous gossamer skin, expressive, alert, dark eyes.

“But you’re…” stammered Terry. “You’re….am I….am I….dead?”

“No, though you almost were before I restored your health,” came a voice from behind Terry – a voice with a weary, lecturing, condescending tone that Terry had become all-too-familiar with.

Realization dawned on Terry, encased in an inoperable suit of Seraphim plastic, still in a Sanctum underneath Albrook, Roxanne and Eleod nowhere to be seen. Not dead yet, which was something…in fact, his wounds all felt better. Healed.

Terry was unable to take his gaze off Yoshiko. Ever since {i} that day {/i}, he had tried to focus, tried to play the hero, put her out of his mind, get through things one day at a time, work on the task at hand…but now that she was here , in front of him all their times together, all their love flooded his body, an adrenalin rush stronger than any he felt in battle.

Terry was afraid to say the words he knew were true. “It’s a fake.” He closed his eyes, tried to turn away from her – but some small part of him still relished her scent, wished to rip this sarcophagus of seraphim off and embrace her to feel and taste her again.

The Master nodded. “It is,” he said. “Even I don’t have something as rare and valuable as a Resurrection Potion just laying around. This is another shadow simulacrum, as before…though, of course, completing a perfect illusion is a beginner’s trap. The secret is to let the subject’s mind fill in the blanks.”

“But….why?” asked Terry. He did his best, muscles working overtime in the dead suit, to stand and face the master. He opened his eyes and gazed upon that horrible face, evil cunning and wily terror incarnate. “Why…why am I not dead? Why…is she here?”

“I think now, you understand that you would be dead if I wished it,” said the Master. “But I do not wish it. I think it’s time we talk. About Yoshiko.”

“You don’t get to say her name!” Terry bellowed. A moment of silence. “I….I don’t want to talk about Yoshiko.”

NO,” said the Master, sternly. “I think you do want to talk about Yoshiko. You see, in all this time, in all your conversations and house parties and movie nights…you never brought her up. Not with Fara. Not with Roxanne, purpose-bound to guide you. Not even with Osprey, who you claim is your friend.”

“Fine, asshole,” conceded Terry. “But what’s the point? You know the story already. Boy meets girl. Boy gets superpowers and confidence. Boy and girl fall in love.”

“Don’t try to be sarcastic, you’re not the funny one,” chided the Master. “Snark is the girl’s refuge, stoicism is yours…but both are just ways to hide from the essential truth of matters.”

“Fine,” said Terry, holding back tears from the memory of the event. “You want to hear me say it? You want to hear how the Pyra Syndicate sent assassins to kill us? You want to hear me talk about how I held her in my arms as her life was drained by venom? You want me to say that I couldn’t save her? You want me to tell you that I would’ve traded it all – the suit, the powers, everything – to be again with the love of my life?”

“I…knew the story, but not the details,” answered the Master. “For what it’s worth…I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not,” retorted Terry. He was already tired of this game – he longed for something to punch.

“Ah yes, anger,” rebuked the Master. “If I recall, that’s how you handle grief…you attacked the Chancellor’s building. You almost killed a Knight, even.”

“Bekkler stopped me, thank the Gods,” said Terry. “I….was not in my right mind, then.”

“Ah, Bekkler, the great, incomparable, Norstein Bekkler,” intoned the Master. “Even for me, he is a bit of a mystery…though, I’m sure when you – his chosen favorite – informed him of the death of your beloved – also an apprentice of his – he used all his massive magical power to help you seek justice.”

Terry swallowed, something hard, deep in his gullet. “He did not.”

“Ah,” said the Master, stroking his beard, quizzically. “Then, I have no doubt he used his considerable political influence as a high-ranking member of the Guardian government to help you seek justice.”

Terry swallowed again, unsure of himself. “He did not.”

“Oh,” said the Master, feigning surprise. “Surely, then, he used his enormous covert network as one of the Web’s premier spymasters to help you seek justice?”

“…he did not.”

“Oh,” said the Master, “then what, pray tell, did the great Norstein Bekkler do to help you in your hour of greatest need?”

“He sent me to Egmont,” answered Terry.

“Egmont? Of all places. Does Bekkler have an affinity for Kuat-branded knickknacks these days?”

“I…had to leave Guardia. Even now I am a wanted man…I would be arrested if I returned. But in Egmont, I helped defend the city from rock demons. It was…it was supposed to be the start of reforging my shield, finding my powers again.”

The Master grinned. “That was the start of the journey…and here is the end.” From the folds of his cloak, he produced a buckler – the sheen and sparkle of Dreamstone was unmistakable.

Terry’s eyes widened.

Cautiously, the Master approached. Although Terry was slow and cumbersome in his dead suit, he labored to move his arms. The Master handed Terry the dreamstone Shield. He felt a charge go down his spine when he felt its weight in his hands, even through the gloves of the suit.

The Master backed away a few steps. “It’s not ‘powered up’ yet, of course….”

“But…you can do that?” asked Terry.

The Master nodded. “Though Bekkler has his own…inimitable…style, the ritual to bind an elemental spirit to dreamstone is known to me. And every enchantment is unique, but you would be as strong as before – able to fly, use your cherished heat vision, and invincible even from Ultima weapons. The strength you need to end the Pyra Syndicate once and for all – to finally find justice for Yoshiko’s killers and lay her poor soul to rest.”

Terry stared at the dreamstone, fancying that he could see inside it. It was a remarkable copy, actually; the weight was even off a bit to the right, just like the original. “And what do you ask in return?”

“Not so much,” said the Master. “Join us. Join our Brotherhood. Be our Lumina, our shining beacon of light, truth, and justice. Together, we can defy FATE and you can return home as the hero you were meant to be.”

Terry looked at the Shield again.

“Try to understand,” added the Master, “there’s only a handful of entities in the Web with the knowledge to do this. This may be your only chance.”

“But Bekkler – “

“If Bekkler desired you to have these powers again, you would have them,” interrupted the Master. “But you must face the facts. He does not care. He has grown bored of you. Discarded you. Exiled you to” – here is face twisted a bit- “ Egmont when you became troublesome to him. You were never more than a curiosity to him – a pet. But here in the Secret Imperial Society, you could be so much more…a Brother.”

Terry breathed deeply. Ever since he came to Albrook – ever since he lost his powers – he had longed for this day. The day that he would finally be able to have his powers back – to fly on his own, to feel Shiru’s strength course through his veins…he imagined how it would happen, perhaps Bekkler summoning him and announcing it was time, perhaps after a long trek to Mt. Ordeals, perhaps through some Mana Seed, magicite, the Triforce, or some other fragment of ancient magical power. A chance to be a hero again.

Terry dropped the Shield.

“I don’t need it,” he said.

“But…what about Yoshiko?”

Her apparition was still behind her. Slowly, forcefully, Terry turned to look at her. “I loved her. But….that was another life. I can’t go back.” Terry turned away from the beautiful visage of his lost love – even though part of him wanted to stay. “But I can go forward.”

With tremendous effort, he took a step toward the Master, his heavy, lifeless suit fighting him every inch of the way. “I…I couldn’t save Yoshiko,” he said. “But…I’m not going to give up on Roxanne. And Eleod. And Fara.” He took another step forward. “I’m going to keep fighting. Powers or no. I am the {b} Shield {/b}, and I shall not waver nor falter.”

The Master took an awkward step back. “What a pity,” he said. “Such a disappointment. You will regret this decision.”

“I would regret buying Yoshiko’s justice with my friends’ lives,” answered Terry, determinedly stepping forward.

“So be it,” spat the Master, “Shield.

A brief invocation, the tree spirit of dryad, and Terry’s suit and lungs were filled with poison pollen.

Terry fell, rendered unconscious – but not defeated.

In the back of his mind, Osprey hoped his friends were doing well. But, of course, he shouldn’t worry so much – the trio of a Valkyrie, a dwarf shadow priest, and the Shield would not be so easily bested by anyone!

Still, Osprey’s attention was more focused on the task at hand. There was a certain thrill to magic-less stealth that he must admit he had missed using shadow magic – walking carefully to leave no sound, observing guards closely to avoid their vision, using flash powder as a distraction. Even though none of these initiates would be a match for him in combat, Osprey knew that his mission to find Fara would be best done as quietly as possible.

Fortunately, this particular Sanctum was relatively small – Eleod had said that the SIS had several places like it across the Web, but of course it would be impossible not to have on in Albrook’s Mystic Ward. And so it was only a matter of careful sneaking, some observations (the prisoners would logically have more guards), and judicious use of disabling itching powder to find the room where the prisoners were kept.

The guards didn’t know what hit them. A flashbang of powder, a whirl of terror and darkness, and the two Initiates guarding Fara were unconscious. “I am the NIGHT!” whooped Osprey triumphantly.

Fara sat on the floor. Bedraggled, her red hair an unwashed mess, she turned slowly to track Osprey. “…Os?” she said.

Fara was in a small cell, still wearing her tactical vest, for all the good it had done her. Her eyes were red and bloodshot, her face streamed with tears. “Oh, Os…it’s terrible…I’ve made a terrible mistake….”

Fara gestured to a glassy orb in the corner of the cell. “That’s…that’s a viewing orb,” she said. “It’s like this magic old-timey thing they used before radio. He…wanted me to watch, to see, to understand …Terry, Eleod, even Roxanne – the Master went through them like they were nothing. “

Osprey’s vision turned to the glassy orb. It displayed an unconscious (and heavily bleeding), Eleod, an immobilized and keeled over Seraphim-suited Terry, and a black tar pit of shadow magic with a Roxanne-shape inside, clawing for freedom.

“It’s all over, Os,” said Fara, choking back tears. “You know, I really liked doing Mana Knight things…clashing with villains, helping people, all that high adventure…but I should’ve known that someone I cared about was going to get hurt.”

Osprey started working on picking the lock. “What are you talking about, Fara? You are the Mana Knight. And yeah, things look bad now.” He took a glance at the viewing orb again. “…ok, real bad. But we’ll get out of this. We always do. We’ll figure something out.”

“It has recently been pointed out to me,” said Fara, her voice tearful, “that careful planning and considered action are not exactly my strong points.”

“Our friends knew the risks, and they came for you anyway,” said Osprey. “You would’ve come for them…just like you came for Butlesworth. Actually…do you know where Butlesworth is?”

Fara gestured in the corner of the room, where a tarp was over something that would’ve been about the size of an RT-series robot. “Butlesworth was part of his plan…oh, Os, I’ve been such an idiot…” She sighed. “Why did I even pick up that damned Sword?”

“…now is maybe not the time to retell the fascinating story of your Secret Origin, Fara,” said Osprey. “Though, I’m sure it’s suitably sad and tragic.”

“No, actually, both my parents (thank Gods) are alive and well,” said Fara“I even have an annoying brother who collects a bunch of shit and jerks off in his room all day…just like this “Master” guy.” She cracked a wan smile. “You think he has a hentai stash in here, too? My brother needed to clear his browser history better.”

Osprey cracked, a smile, too. All too briefly.

It happened in an instant – Osprey’s head cocked for a split-second. Fara had heard nothing, but as soon as Osprey was moving he eyes followed his inevitable path.

There, in the room, was the Master of Mana, virtually unscathed by his confrontation with the other heroes. In his right hand, with an impossibly large blade and a ridiculously gaudy hilt, was the Mana Sword – there was no way Fara could mistake it.

Osprey was bounding – it was less than five paces to the Master and Osprey covered it in a fraction of a second. Shiva’s Edge was free from its sheath – Fara couldn’t help admired the beautiful kenjutsu form draw cut, directed at the Master’s open side. Such speed! – it would take a world-class fencer to parry it.

The Master, for once, seemed surprised and agog.

Shiva’s Edge cut into the Master’s robe. There was noted resistance, like cutting through armor – clearly these cloaks had some defensive enchantments, a Gnome defender spell or something similar, enough to turn bullets and normal weapons.

But Shiva’s edge was no normal weapon. Forged with a god’s dying breath, it cut through the steel-hard cloak and found flesh, cutting deep into the Master’s flesh.

Osprey’s moment of surprised lasted just an instant, and then a disk of wind smashed him away, smashed him into the corner of the room, far from the Master.

The Master, with a huge, bleeding wound, momentarily appeared shocked. He dabbed at the wound, examining it. “It has been an age since I have seen my own blood,” he remarked. “This is…quite unpleasant.” He gestured with his hand, and a blue ring glowed, and Undine’s healing waters washed over him, restoring him to full health and cleansing the wound.

“I suppose I should’ve aimed for the head,” groused Osprey.

“It would have been a greater…inconvenience, but it would not have mattered,” answered the Master. “I should recognize such skill…I understand, you are looking for work?”

“Yeah,” said Osprey. “I’m an excellent typist, and really good and fixing photocopiers.”

The Master smiled, quizzically. “Maybe you’re the funny one…you deserve a suitable end,” he said, waving his hand, invoking the chaotic powers of Luna.

Osprey morphed – polymorphed – into a chicken. His sword and clothes laying on the floor.

The whole time, Fara noticed that the Master barely moved the Mana Sword. Not to deflect or parry or push Osprey away. It just stood limply by his side.

“Don’t you see now, you silly girl,” taunted the Master. “Your friends are all at my mercy. The Sword is mine. Perhaps, at last, you understand.” The Master grinned, revealing chipped, yellowed teeth. “One final lesson for you. One final test. Only one question, and I believe you know the answer, but I want to hear you say it. The question is this. ‘Who is the Master?’”

Fara looked into the viewing orb, where all her friends lay defeated. Slowly, in a daze, she walked over to Osprey. She looked at the once-noble warrior, reduced to a chicken, and her eyes traced the curve of Shiva’s Edge.

“You see?” taunted the Master. “There is nothing any of your friends could do. It is just as I said – you have led them all to ruin. They have paid a heavy price for your arrogance.”

Fara, choked back sobs. She fell to her knees, overwhelmed. She could barely muster a whisper, inaudible in the oppressive silence of the chamber.

The Master strode closer to her. His tone stern, “Louder. I can’t hear you….Who is the Master?”

Tears rolled down Fara’s face. It had all come to this. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She gurgled out another whisper.

The Master took another step closer. “I do understand that this experience has not been easy, but learning and growth never is. But, I’ll give you one more chance.” The Master leaned over, putting his face near Fara’s. She could smell rancid breath, see the pale gelatin spheres of his ghostly eyes.

Their eyes locked. It had all come to this.

“Who is the Master?”

Fara whispered. “I know something you don’t know mister smartypants.”

The Master sniggered. “What could that possibly be? I’ve studied the secrets of Mana for ages untold…you’re probably going to flunk Freshman Writing Composition.”

Fara’s sobbing stopped. “I know how to fight with a sword.”

She headbutted the master square in the face like it was a soccer-ball. She dove for Shiva’s Edge, and rolled into a standing kenjutsu stance – not her strong style, but it will have to do.

She launched forward off her backfoot – she hoped against hope in the split-second that the Master lacked the finely honed combat reflexes of her usual sparring partners. She swung the katana in a downward slash, aiming at his sword-hand.

Shiva’s Edge cut through flesh, sinew, and bone easily, and severed the Master’s hand –still clutching the Mana Sword – fell to the ground.

And the Mana Sword – still manifested in its impossibly gaudy, bejeweled shape – shattered like a glass pot, and vanished.

NO! ” shouted the Master, anguished. “You stupid little girl – what have you done?”

“I’ve taken your lesson to heart,” retorted Fara. “The Mana Sword isn’t just a physical object, isn’t just a sword…it’s bound to the very soul of its wielder. Did you really think your black heart would temper such fine steel?” Fara regained a cocky half-smile. “You didn’t even know enough swords to manifest a type with proper hand protection.”

“it’s…it’s gone ,” the Master was still shocked. “The Sword only appears once in an era…and Fara tried her luck with a lunging thrust, hoping the Master was still discombobulated enough for her to land a strike.

Looking very tired and irritated, the Master waved his hand and swatted her back with a bone-crushing gust of wind. He gestured with his hand, and from the ground a cage of stone erupted to imprison Fara.

“It pains me to say this, but the gunslinger was right,” said the Master, “I should have killed you and saved myself the trouble.”

Fara used Shiva’s Edge to slash through the hard rock to free herself, marveling at the blade’s cutting power. “You said it yourself,” said Fara. “The Sword is bound to me….if you kill me, the Sword may be lost to this world forever.”

The Master’s good hand let loose with a great gout of fire – Fara rushed him anyway, rolling to the right and forward to get inside his guard for a quick stab that pierced the Master’s armor enchantments.

This time, the Master felt true pain, rather than bemusement. His still-bleeding wrist had started to turn blue; a similar viscous blue fluid was running from his nose, his eyes.

“I think you’re overworking yourself,” said Fara. “You’ve been so busy recently…when you were juiced on the Sword you could take in all the Mana you wanted, but now it’s all starting to catch up to you, isn’t it?”

“I still have more than enough power to end you,” retorted the Master, freezing an array of ice-lances that he launches at Fara in quick succession.

Fara, feeling the rush of adrenalin, cut through the ice-lances with a jumping slash – but something pulled her to the ground, hard. Try as she might to retain her stance, something was pulling her down and backward. Taking her eyes off the Master for an instant, she saw a gaping, black, evil gate of shadow behind her.

“You dwarf friend always told me that the dark vortex was among the most horrible ways to die,” the Master intoned, regaining some of his confidence. “The umbral energies of the evil gate will shred you alive, and every pain neuron in your body will feel it…”

Fara lost her sword-grip, Shiva’s Edge was wrenched from her hand by the magic black hole’s intense gravitational pull.

“The Sword will find its way back to this world, one way or another,” continued the Master. “Perhaps the next Knight will be more…pliable. You, though, Fara Somers…you don’t even die as the Mana Knight. You will die as a nobody.”

Fara gulped, reaching deep down inside herself. “I’m not nobody,” she said. “I’m me.”

Deep down in her soul, she found what she was looking for.

Glowflies of light, specs of metal, flew from around the chamber, buzzing and whirling, flew towards Fara’s sword-hand. Bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, they assembled themselves in a distinctive shape – a classic, functional longsword.

“Do you know what this is?” taunted Fara. “This is the Mana Sword. My Sword.” And with the power of the Mana Sword, she turned and cut through the shadowy vortex.

The Master’s eyes showed anger, but not shock or surprise – severed from him, of course the Sword would seek its original Knight. In his rage, he unleashed whatever magic he had left – lucent beams, bouquets of flame, gem missiles – but it did not matter. One after another, Fara swatted them all aside with the Sword, as she strode ever closer.

“Let me tell you something else I know that you don’t know,” said Fara, cleaving through an orb of dark force. “I know that power must be used to protect the weak.” She parried a lucent beam, its light scattering across the chamber. “I know that might must be used with empathy.” The Sword sliced through arcing bolts of lightning. “And I know that kindness is strength…and cruelty is weakness.”

Fara felt no hurry to close in on him. As far as she was concerned, this fight was over – once inside a few paces, she rushed him and, with a clean swipe, knocked the Master to his feet. Proud, she stood over him, the Sword pointed at his throat.

“You are beaten,” she announced. “And you will never – ever—hurt me or my friends again.”

Defeated, the Master was still defiant – a crazed laugh escaped his lips. “Fine, what will you do, then? No prison in this Web could hold me. Kill me if you wish…but even the Elemental Forces of Death and Life – Kethalis and Althenar-- bend to my will. I will not be ignored.”

Fara thought for a moment. “You broke a divine law by stealing a Mana Seed from the Pure Land,” answered Fara. “As I understand it, there is a place for troublesome immortals. A Place Which Is No More.”

The Master slumped, his eyes turned down. “How can this be? How has it come to this? Me – the Master of Mana, Guru of the Mystic Arts, Lord of the Twelve Elementals, the Sagacious One – laid low and humiliated by…{i} you [/i]…you’re just a stupid little girl swinging a sword about…”

Standing tall and proud, Fara nudged the Master’s face up with the edge of the sword, making sure he met her fiery gaze.

“I am more than you will ever know,” she said, her eyes blazing.

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